Jane Jacobs: New Urbanist Who Transformed City Planning

Jane Jacobs and others picket to save Penn Station from demolition, 1963
Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

American and Canadian writer and activist Jane Jacobs transformed the field of urban planning with her writing about American cities and her grass-roots organizing. She led resistance to the wholesale replacement of urban communities with high rise buildings and the loss of community to expressways. Along with Lewis Mumford, she is considered a founder of the New Urbanist movement.

Jacobs saw cities as living ecosystems. She took a systemic look at all the elements of a city, looking at them not just individually, but as parts of an interconnected system. She supported bottom-up community planning, relying on the wisdom of those who lived in the neighborhoods to know what would best suit the location. She preferred mixed-use neighborhoods to separate residential and commercial functions and fought conventional wisdom against high-density building, believing that well-planned high density did not necessarily mean overcrowding. She also believed in preserving or transforming old buildings where possible, rather than tearing them down and replacing them.

Early Life

Jane Jacobs was born Jane Butzner on May 4, 1916. Her mother, Bess Robison Butzner, was a teacher and nurse. Her father, John Decker Butzner, was a physician. They were a Jewish family in the predominantly Roman Catholic city of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Jane attended Scranton High School and, after graduation, worked for a local newspaper.

New York

In 1935, Jane and her sister Betty moved to Brooklyn, New York. But Jane was endlessly attracted to the streets of Greenwich Village and moved to the neighborhood, with her sister, shortly after. 

When she moved to New York City, Jane began working as a secretary and writer, with a particular interest in writing about the city itself. She studied at Columbia for two years and then left for a job with Iron Age magazine. Her other places of employment included the Office of War Information and the U.S. State Department.

In 1944, she married Robert Hyde Jacobs, Jr, an architect working on airplane design during the war. After the war, he returned to his career in architecture, and she to writing. They bought a house in Greenwich Village and started a backyard garden.

Still working for the U.S. State Department, Jane Jacobs became a target of suspicion in the McCarthyism purge of communists in the department. Though she had been actively anti-communist, her support of unions brought her under suspicion. Her written response to the Loyalty Security Board defended free speech and the protection of extremist ideas.

Challenging the Consensus on Urban Planning

In 1952, Jane Jacobs began working at Architectural Forum, after the publication she’d been writing for before moving to Washington. She continued to write articles about urban planning projects and later served as the associate editor. After investigating and reporting on several urban development projects in Philadelphia and East Harlem, she came to believe that much of the common consensus on urban planning exhibited little compassion for the people involved, especially African Americans. She observed that “revitalization” often came at the expense of the community. 

In 1956, Jacobs was asked to substitute for another Architectural Forum writer and give a lecture at Harvard. She talked about her observations on East Harlem, and the importance of “strips of chaos” over “our concept of urban order.” 

The speech was well-received, and she was asked to write for Fortune magazine. She used that occasion to write “Downtown Is for People” criticizing Parks Commissioner Robert Moses for his approach to redevelopment in New York City, which she believed neglected the needs of the community by focusing too heavily on concepts like scale, order, and efficiency.

In 1958, Jacobs received a large grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to study city planning. She linked up with the New School in New York, and after three years, published the book for which she is most renowned, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

She was denounced for this by many who were in the city planning field, often with gender-specific insults, minimizing her credibility. She was criticized for not including an analysis of race, and for not opposing all gentrification.

Greenwich Village

Jacobs became an activist working against the plans from Robert Moses to tear down existing buildings in Greenwich Village and build high rises. She generally opposed top-down decision-making, as practiced by "master builders" like Moses. She warned against overexpansion of New York University. She opposed the proposed expressway that would have connected two bridges to Brooklyn with the Holland Tunnel, displacing much housing and many businesses in Washington Square Park and the West Village. This would have destroyed Washington Square Park, and preserving the park became a focus of activism. She was arrested during one demonstration. These campaigns were turnaround points in removing Moses from power and changing the direction of city planning.


After her arrest, the Jacobs family moved to Toronto in 1968 and received Canadian citizenship. There, she became involved in stopping an expressway and rebuilding neighborhoods on a more community-friendly plan. She became a Canadian citizen and continued her work in lobbying and activism to question conventional city planning ideas.

Jane Jacobs died in 2006 in Toronto. Her family asked that she be remembered “by reading her books and implementing her ideas.”

Summary of Ideas in The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In the introduction, Jacobs makes quite clear her intention:

"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to Sunday supplements and women's magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hair-splitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."

Jacobs observes such commonplace realities about cities as the functions of sidewalks to tease out the answers to questions, including what makes for safety and what does not, what distinguishes parks that are "marvelous" from those that attract vice, why slums resist change, how downtowns shift their centers. She also makes clear that her focus is "great cities" and especially their "inner areas" and that her principles may not apply to suburbs or towns or small cities.

She outlines the history of city planning and how America got to the principles in place with those charged with making change in cities, especially after World War II. She particularly argued against Decentrists who sought to decentralize populations and against followers of architect Le Corbusier, whose "Radiant City" idea favored high-rise buildings surrounded by parks -- high-rise buildings for commercial purposes, high-rise buildings for luxury living, and high-rise low-income projects.

Jacobs argues that conventional urban renewal has harmed city life. Many theories of "urban renewal" seemed to assume that living in the city was undesirable. Jacobs argues that these planners ignored the intuition and experience of those actually living in the cities, who were often the most vocal opponents of the "evisceration" of their neighborhoods. Planners put expressways through neighborhoods, ruining their natural ecosystems. The way that low-income housing was introduced was, she showed, often creating even more unsafe neighborhoods where hopelessness ruled.

A key principle for Jacobs is diversity, what she calls "a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses." The benefit of diversity is mutual economic and social support. She advocated that there were four principles to create diversity:

  1. The neighborhood should include a mixture of uses or functions. Rather than separating into separate areas the commercial, industrial, residential, and cultural spaces, Jacobs advocated for intermixing these.
  2. Blocks should be short. This would make promote walking to get to other parts of the neighborhood (and buildings with other functions), and it would also promote people interacting.
  3. Neighborhoods should contain a mixture of older and newer buildings. Older buildings might need renovation and renewal, but should not simply be razed to make room for new buildings, as old buildings made for a more continuous character of the neighborhood. Her work led to more focus on historical preservation.
  4. A sufficiently dense population, she argued, contrary to the conventional wisdom, created safety and creativity, and also created more opportunities for human interaction. Denser neighborhoods created "eyes on the street" more than separating and isolating people would.

All four conditions, she argued, must be present, for adequate diversity. Each city might have different ways of expressing the principles, but all were needed.

Jane Jacobs' Later Writings

Jane Jacobs wrote six other books, but her first book remained the center of her reputation and her ideas. Her later works were:

  • The Economy of Cities. 1969.
  • The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty. 1980.
  • Cities and the Wealth of Nations. 1984.
  • Systems of Survival. 1992.
  • The Nature of Economies. 2000.
  • Dark Age Ahead. 2004.

Selected Quotes

“We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.”

“…that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact – they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated.”

“To seek "causes" of poverty in this way is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Jane Jacobs: New Urbanist Who Transformed City Planning." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/jane-jacobs-biography-4154171. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). Jane Jacobs: New Urbanist Who Transformed City Planning. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jane-jacobs-biography-4154171 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Jane Jacobs: New Urbanist Who Transformed City Planning." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jane-jacobs-biography-4154171 (accessed June 6, 2023).